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Maine DA Plans to Release File Details on Priests

Saturday, February 23, 2002

By GREGORY D. KESICH, Portland Press Herald Writer
Copyright © 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson said Friday she will release a written report detailing allegations of abuse against former Roman Catholic priests in Maine, complete with a statistical breakdown of complaints and descriptions of how the church dealt with individual priests.

The decision on which allegations to prosecute will be handled on a case-by-case basis, Anderson said as she provided her first detailed account of her plans for any priest personnel files she receives from the Portland Diocese. She said she will:

Prosecute if illegal conduct occurred within the statute of limitations - since 1984. Such allegations will be turned over to local police for investigation.

Notify people in danger if the allegations involve someone who still has access to children. She will make those notifications even if she cannot bring a formal charge.
Keep private the names of dead priests or ones so old and incapacitated that, in her opinion, they do not pose a public safety threat.

Anderson's role as arbiter in the unfolding scandal has been of interest since the Portland Diocese announced its plan to turn information over to the district attorney within a month. Anderson said she is prepared to be criticized both by those who think she releases too much and those who think she releases too little.

"The whole thing can run amok pretty easily. That's the reason the church turned it all over to me," Anderson said. "Yes, it's an unusual role, but this is an unusual situation."
She is already beginning to hear criticism.

By promising to release information about cases she has no plans to prosecute, Anderson goes beyond the commonly understood role of a prosecutor, said University of Maine Law Professor Mel Zarr.

"I think when she thinks about it, she will decide not to do it," Zarr said. "It's an odd thing for a prosecutor to make a public disclosure about someone she has no intention to prosecute, without giving them any due process. It may be a role for somebody, but it's an odd role for her."

Zarr said prosecutors review criminal cases with only one question in mind: Is there enough evidence to convince a jury of a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?
If there is, the case goes to court. If there isn't, the case typically goes away.

"As a general rule, they don't comment on cases they are not going to prosecute," Zarr said. "If they decide no, then you never hear about it."

Anderson said that as an elected official she has a duty to protect public safety that goes beyond her role as a prosecutor. And the case of the priests is unique both because the Catholic Church had a history of handling the allegations privately, and the church asked her to review the records.

"My focus will be on the perspective of protecting kids," Anderson said. "If I find out about some former priest who molested a bunch of kids and is working for some school district somewhere, I am not going to sit on that information. I don't know exactly what I am going to do, but I am not going to sit on it."

That may not be enough for some victims. Many who say they were exploited by priests want the men to face public exposure, even if they no longer pose a threat to children.
Phil Saviano, the New England coordinator for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said full disclosure of what happened in the past is needed to help victims heal and to educate the public to avoid future victimization.

"It's important for the parishes to have a full understanding of what happened, whether the priest is dead or in a nursing home or not," Saviano said.

"The experience of being sexually abused can affect a child for many years after," he said. "It may be helpful for a parent who had a 14-year-old kid whose grades suddenly dropped off and developed an aversion to authority to find out that one of these priests had been in their community. They might be able to talk to their child, who's now in his 30s, about what may have happened in his life."

Saviano, who is based in Boston, said every time a priest is publicly identified, more victims come forward. "It's very empowering for them; there is safety in numbers," he said.

Anderson said she will listen to victims' groups, but she is not convinced that full public disclosure is the answer.

"I have not been persuaded," she said. "I don't know what is to be gained, looking at it from a law-enforcement point of view."

The announcement this week has already brought national attention to the Maine prosecutor. This week a crew from the ABC television program "Nightline" taped an interview with her, which was shown in part Thursday night.

Staff Writer Gregory D. Kesich can be contacted at 207-791-6336

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests